NO sooner has Mark Killen stepped out of his vehicle in a wind-bashed paddock just outside Merriwa than more than 1000 animals rush towards him.
“Here they come,” the farmer says, as a smile erupts from within his neatly trimmed goatee.
The ground doesn’t shake; rather it looks as though it is wobbling. A wave of feathers flutters over the grass, accompanied by the frenetic sounds of clucking and chortling.
Within seconds the wave is eddying and swirling around Killen’s feet. His legs are being swamped by Bond Black chickens.
“The way they live their lives, it’s fascinating,” Killen says above the chook din.
In turn, the chickens have helped Killen change the way he lives. They have made the grass greener, both on his property and in the way he has viewed his world as a farmer.
And in answering that conundrum of what came first - the chicken or the egg - in the life of Killen, at least, the sequence is clear. First there were the chickens, then came the eggs. Connoisseurs and chefs seek out the eggs, just this week, those eggs won a gold medal at the delicious. Produce Awards. Like the product itself, the eggs’ name fills the mouth and holds a direct link to the land where they are created: Papanui.
MARK Killen was born into farming. He is from a line of farmers dating back to the mid 1800s. In 1964, when Mark was about five, his father, Richard, moved the family onto the property called Papanui.
There were chooks out the back of the house, but young Mark didn’t like them.
“I thought they were horrible things, I wouldn’t touch them,” he chuckles. “I knew nothing about them. Mum took care of them.”
Richard Killen spent less and less time on Papanui as he moved further into the politics of the land. He became a senior member of the National Party and was a member of parliament in the NSW Upper House for a decade. His son effectively took over the running of the 900-hectare property, which produced crops and beef cattle. Yet Mark Killen’s life and livelihood were making him sick.
“I’m allergic to wheat dust,” he explains.
Years of being made miserable by cropping brought on a “mid-life crisis” for Killen. He knew he had to get away from crops without leaving Papanui. He intended to concentrate on cattle, when prices crashed. Killen wasn’t going to return to cropping to make a living. He couldn’t - he had sold all the harvesting machinery. So he took work helping out a neighbour who was developing an olive grove.
As he worked along the rows of trees, Killen realised what would keep the ground healthy were chickens. “They eat the weeds, they fertilise a bit themselves, they deal with the snails,” Killen reasoned. “The whole thing worked in my head.”
Killen figured he could try out his idea on his own farm. “I was always looking for an answer to ‘Why can’t we get our farm to be better? Why do we have these weeds on it?’,” Killen says. “Bare ground is a vacuum to Mother Nature, so something will move in there”.
For years, Killen had been an admirer and reader of American farmer and author Joel Salatin. Killen wanted to apply Salatin’s philosophy of trying to imitate nature in farming. Just as birds follow herd animals in the wild, Killen figured chickens could follow his cattle on Papanui. The idea was that the flattened grass and the bugs living in the dung would provide food for the chooks, and their pecking and scratching would help regenerate the land, providing more feed for the cattle. In 2001, he bought 50 chickens.
However, unlike what happens in nature, he decided to put some wheels under his chooks. Killen bought a caravan for $600, gutted it and turned it into a mobile chook house. “I just fell in love with the idea, and I wanted to try it,” he says, arguing that if it didn’t work out, at least he could keep the bar fridge from the caravan.
Still, he was hopeful those chooks on wheels would help keep him off the treadmill of cropping. His hopes were realised. That one caravan and 50 chickens have blossomed into a fleet of vehicles and about 4000 birds on the property.
AS if seeing a wave of chooks washing across a paddock towards you isn’t bizarre enough, the sight of a couple of old buses parked in the field is even more surreal.
Inside one of the buses, there is still a sign, “Licensed to Seat 45 Passengers”. This bus has been modified by Killen to accommodate about 700 passengers. In here, chickens roost and nest. Killen bought his first bus from a neighbour for a dozen eggs. He now has nine on the property.
The buses have side ramps, so the chooks can come and go at leisure to pick and peck their way around the paddocks. “These girls are doing their job,” Killen says. “Chickens are doing pasture improvement.”
He explains while the chickens are free to wander, they tend to go only a couple of hundred metres. As we trudge away from the two buses, Killen can trace the limits of the chooks’ range. He points to patches of thistles. Not that I look; I’m watching what is watching us. A couple of shaggy Maremma dogs are sitting in the grass. This breed may have begun as sheepdogs, but here they are chookdogs, as they guard the chickens from predators, including foxes and wedge-tailed eagles.
Each chicken camp, or “station” as Killen calls it, comprises two buses and two Maremma guard dogs. The property has four stations, and an additional “training” bus. Chicks learn to roost in the training bus, and at 16 weeks old, they head out into the paddocks.
“People say you can’t train chooks, but you can,” explains Killen. “They’re creatures of habit, as we all are. If they decide this is their bus, they won’t get on another.”
Every few nights, the buses are towed to another paddock. Papanui once had about 20 large paddocks, but over time Killen divided the property into about 150 paddocks. Each paddock is grazed, on average, for only six days a year, “so it has time to recover”, particularly with the help of the chickens.
The rotation is good for not just the land, Killen says, but also for the chickens. “They need stimulation, they like grass beneath their feet,” he says.
So they are happy chooks? “I think so,” Killen replies. “I can’t hear any complaining.” That happiness, he believes, is expressed in the eggs the chickens lay.
Each afternoon, the eggs are collected, usually by backpackers who stay and work on the farm. On this day, Zhinan Chen, 23, from Guangzhou in China, and Krifa Abdessalem, 36, from Tunisia, are doing the rounds of the “stations”.
Chen has been at the property for a week and is still getting used to the incessant noise of the chooks when she is collecting eggs. “My ears are almost deaf!,” she says.
After graduating from university, Chen decided she wanted to travel and experience a large farm under big skies. Her grandparents had worked a small vegetable plot in rural China, but moved to the city. “That’s what I want to see, a farmer’s life,” she says. “I really enjoy this kind of life.”
Abdessalem is used to chooks; he had a small farm in Tunisia, he explains, as he loads trays into the back of a four-wheel-drive. In a few hours, those trays will be filled, as the pair collect about 2500 eggs.
Even after picking up so many eggs, Abdessalem has not lost his taste for them, or for farm life. “Every day, we’re learning something new,” he says. “And they’re wonderful quality eggs. Two eggs, I’m full!”
In the shed that once housed the grain harvester, the eggs are packaged by Killen’s wife, Di, and five other women, keeping the process local. “It’s not just sustainability of the land, it’s sustainability of the community,” Killen explains.
The egg cartons wear the Papanui brand, a name which the Killens grasped in desperation when they couldn’t think of anything else. The eggs are referred to as “open range”. Killen rejects the term “free range”; he believes that label has “been bastardised by the politicians and the big end of town”. Producers can have up to 10,000 birds in a hectare and still qualify as “free range”. Killen points to a dining table and argues, “that’s about two chooks on this table!”.
To emphasise his chooks had more space, could roam and were moved onto new ground frequently, Killen came up with “open range”.
In a practical way, producing “open range” eggs, he says, is labour intensive and not as profitable. But the rewards are revealed when a shell is cracked and the contents are cooked and consumed in homes and restaurants far and near.
Each week, thousands of eggs are freighted to Sydney (a dozen can sell for up to $15). Eggs are also delivered to Newcastle, and just down the road, to the IGA supermarket in Merriwa, where Papanui Eggs were first sold 16 years ago.
“I think I didn’t wait a minute, I thought it was a good idea, because this was local,” recalls supermarket owner Keith Richards. They walked off the shelves and still do. “They [the Killens] bring them in every week, and sometimes we have to ring them and get more,” says Richards, who retails a carton for $6.99.
“Some people won’t have any other eggs, they just want Papanui. They’ve become part of the place. They’re like the eggs from years ago, when chooks were running around backyards.”
They’re the kind of compliments Killen works for. He says the eggs can vary in taste, depending on what the chickens have been eating, and the weather. But as long as the eggs taste good, and the customers are happy, he’s satisfied. “It’s nice to close the gap between the people who eat the tucker and those who produce it,” he says.
AS Mark Killen scoops up a chicken and gently strokes its feathers, it’s hard to imagine this is the same person who, when he was a kid, thought they were horrible.
I ask him what he thinks of chickens now.
“They’re fantastic creatures,” he replies. “You can’t do something like this and not like them.”